by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Each week, InsideNU will bring you an opponent’s take on the matchup ahead in the interest of providing a wider perspective on each game. This week, For a game that's generating all types of hype and excitement, we got in touch with the best Nebraska coverage around: Big Red Today, the Omaha World Herald microsite dedicated solely to Nebraska football (with a contextual emphasis on the rest of the Big Ten). Rich Kaipust, one of the excellent writers comprising BRT's unparralleled Huskers coverage, took some time to answer some questions in preparation for Saturday's Legends clash. Follow him on Twitter @RKaipustOWH.
Describe the benefits of having experienced the Big Ten last season. Do you sense the players, coaches and the program more broadly has a better sense of what to expect in a new league this season?
RK: It definitely has helped to make a trip through the league, no doubt. But I think one thing that Nebraska has found is that there are some spread offenses and there are some good mobile quarterbacks around the league, and the staff doesn't have to completely re-make its defense to defend a "Big Ten prototype offense" by getting bigger and always going with three linebackers. In that sense, some of what they did best in the Big 12 -- with nickel and dime packages, and actually playing some smaller and faster defenders -- actually still fits.
There was a lot of talk about Taylor Martinez's improved throwing this offseason. From a statistical standpoint, he's made considerable strides. Is there anything that sticks out about his progression this offseason? Should opposing fans finally put to rest the "arm punt"/"shotput" jokes?
RK: Ya know, you'll still see the same Taylor throwing off the back foot or throwing from almost a short-arm motion from time to time, reverting to that old form. But he has made some strides with not only his mechanics and footwork but his decision-making, checkdowns, etc. However, he is still prone to fumbling, which has been a career-long problem, and still runs into the problem of trying to do too much when Nebraska is behind (see the second halves vs. Ohio State and UCLA).
There Huskers have a host of explosive receivers, including Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa. Who do you feel is the strongest/ most well-rounded wideout? Is this one of (if not the) best receiving corps in the Big Ten?
RK: If you combo it with the tight ends (Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton), I do believe it is. Bell has been very good -- and very dangerous with that 23.1 yards per catch. Really made some huge strides from his promising redshirt freshman season. Might not look it, but he's tough and durable to go with his great speed. Although Nebraska has a lot of mouths to feed at receiver, one shortcoming is that it probably hasn't gotten the ball to Jamal Turner as much as it should, considering his big-play potential.
There was some preseason Heisman buzz for Rex Burkhead, yet Ameer Abdullah seems to have stolen the show at running back. Do you expect Burkhead to regain his status as the primary ballcarrier, or has Abdullah clearly and definitively surpassed him?
RK: Burkhead's knee problems actually have given Abdullah his chance to shine, and the sophomore has taken advantage. It likely will be a situation going forward where they split the load (assuming Burkhead is healthy) because Abdullah has earned the work. When the going gets tough, though, Burkhead is still going to be their man if he's ready.
Speaking of Abdullah, everyone saw last season what a dangerous weapon he can be on special teams, but he's elevated his offensive game to a whole new level. Did you expect he would grow into such a huge role this season? Is he Nebraska's best overall offensive player?
RK: The biggest thing is that he's proved he can be an all-around and every-down back, something that we maybe didn't know after his freshman year. He has showed that he can run inside and out, that he can catch the football out of the backfield and that he also can pass protect. Also seems to have become a presence on the offense and a potential future leader for the unit. Still needs to take better care of the football, because he has lost some untimely fumbles.
Bo Pelini was hired for his defensive expertise. Now in his fifth year, it's fair to ask why -- besides a few scattered performances suggesting the contraty -- he hasn't met expectations on that side of the ball. What's been the main reason for the poor defensive effort of late? Is it a recruiting problem? or is something amiss schematically? As for this season, what's been the defense's biggest point of vulnerability?
RK: Simplest answer is that it mostly looks to be a talent issue right now. They are really lacking All-Big Ten candidates and NFL-type players on that side of the ball. That follows the years in which Pelini had Suh, Potter, Turner, Dillard, Amukamara, Gomes, Crick, David, Dennard, etc. I think that's part of the frustration right now is that the staff seems to believe it has the players in the right positions but that they're just not executing and making plays.
Who are some under-the-radar players on the defense? on offense?
RK: You've got Spencer Long at right guard on the offensive line who has been a steady force since the former walk-on became a starter before the 2011 season. They also really like Andy Janovich, a hard-nosed fullback from the Omaha area who is playing as a true freshman. On the defensive side, cornerback Charles Jackson has the tools to be pretty special as he gets more time and experience, and defensive tackle Kevin Williams might eventually turn into a good player.
What is the Huskers' greatest strength, greatest weakness?
RK: When the offense is clicking, it can really hurt teams and get on a roll with its up-tempo no-huddle attack, and it's ability to spread the football around to a number of different weapons. But it also runs into trouble with turnovers. Defensively, Nebraska has been way better against pro-style offenses than spread attacks in recent seasons, continuing to have problems with mobile quarterbacks and making plays in space. It also has failed to create turnovers, and goes into the Northwestern game at minus-six in turnover ratio.
RK: I think the bye week helped Nebraska regroup and its offense will be hard for Northwestern to handle if it gets going and takes care of the football. Wildcats will get their yards and make their plays, but I'll say: Nebraska 38, Northwestern 28